Red eye flights typically depart after 9 PM and arrive at their destination as early as 5 AM and get the name “red eye” from the fact that passengers on them often get little to no sleep and have red eyes by the end. But despite the name and its implications, you can actually sleep on a red eye, and better than you might think. Not all routes offer red eye flights, but many long and/or popular flights (e.g. between big cities, from the eastern to the western side of the country, etc.) do.
A red eye flight might not be your first choice, but there are definitely advantages to flying when most of the western world is sleeping. For one, they are often cheaper, sometimes by quite a bit. Airlines don’t want to fly their planes below capacity if they don’t have to, and they price overnight tickets accordingly. For another, they give you more time at your destination that can be spent on work or leisure. They are also often less crowded because they’re not appealing to as many flyers.
If the idea of saving money and time appeals to you, here are 12 things to do to improve your quality of sleep when you board a plan for a red eye flight.
In this post you'll learn:
Don’t Sit in the Aisle
If you can help it, try not to sit in an aisle seat on your red eye flight. As everyone on your plane gets up in the middle of the night to take turns using the claustrophobic bathroom, you’ll be glad you aren’t seated in the highest-traffic part of the plane. Try to avoid sitting right next to the crew too.
A window seat is obviously ideal, but you’ll want to try to get one of these as far in advance as possible—about 50% of people prefer window seats, but there are only so many to go around. You might be able to switch to an open middle seat if your flight isn’t crowded, which is more likely on red eye flights. But whatever you do, don’t sit too close to the restroom.
Bring Noise-Canceling Headphones (or Earplugs)
Noise-canceling headphones or some good old-fashioned earplugs will be your best friend on a red eye.
If you find yourself traveling through the night often, it would probably be worth investing in a quality pair of headphones that blocks out all outside noise (i.e. crying babies in the row next to you, chatty aisle neighbors, etc.). Then, put on some relaxing classical music or white noise if that’s what helps you fall asleep at home and you’ll almost be able to trick yourself into thinking you’re not on an airplane. Try a free app like Calm for some sleep-friendly soundscapes.
Just be careful not to abuse the headphones by watching movies or videos when you could be sleeping. If possible, get this out of your system before you board your plane.
Hit the Gym
If you’re lucky enough to have a gym at your airport and you have an hour to spare before your flight, don’t be afraid to use it. Quality of sleep improves when you tire your body out with a good workout session. Moderate exercise done at least an hour before sleeping has been proven to help you sleep more deeply and wake less often.
Just don’t overdo it—for some, working out too intensely—e.g. cardio, weightlifting, etc.—shortly before going to bed actually has a negative impact on quality of sleep.
But if you’re gym-less, don’t sweat it. Even a long walk around the airport is great for getting your body ready to shut down.
Save the Caffeine for the Morning
If you normally go for a second (or third) cup of coffee in the afternoon to power through the rest of the workday, try to refrain on the day of your flight. Experts recommend drinking caffeinated beverages no fewer than four to six hours before you plan to sleep. By depriving your body of the caffeine it expects, you force it to become tired and you’ll easily fall asleep right away when you board your plane.
Try some caffeinated black or green tea instead of coffee if you don’t want to deal with total caffeine withdrawal symptoms, and some hot chamomile or peppermint tea right before bed to promote sleep.
Be Mindful of What You Eat
Likewise, be careful not to eat anything that’s going to hinder your ability to get some shut-eye on your red eye. You may be fine to eat whatever you want for dinner when you’re sleeping at home, but when you’re sleeping on a plane, your body can use all the help it can get resting.
Avoid heavy foods like cheese and carbs, acidic fruits and veggies, and anything with a lot of added sugar for the best quality sleep. And if you’re eating dinner at the airport, try to grab a bite to eat as early as possible. Many people sleep better after giving their stomachs a few hours to digest a meal.
Part of the reason sleeping on a plane is so uncomfortable is because you often feel dirty. When you don’t get a chance to shower before your flight and then have to board a plane that has seen hundreds of passengers, it’s easy to feel a little—grimy. This is why it’s smart to bring personal hygiene products for red eye flights.
Even if you’re taking a short trip and don’t plan to stay at a hotel, it’s a good idea to pack a small bag of toiletries for your flight. Facial cleansing wipes, a toothbrush, and mouthwash can go a long way in making you feel more comfortable. Mimic your typical nightly routine as best as you can in the airport bathroom.
Change into Something Comfortable
Don’t make the mistake of boarding a late-night flight in your work clothes. Restrictive suits and scratchy tights won’t do you any favors when it comes time to try to sleep through your route because your body won’t be able to differentiate between day and night, work and rest. Bring pajamas or sweats and anything else that makes you feel cozy at home.
You never know how warm or cold a plane will be. Layer up and bring more than you think you’ll need. And make sure your feet are comfortable too—red eye veterans can often be seen sliding on a pair of slippers or thick socks before bed.
If you have an important meeting or work event to attend shortly after arriving at your destination, it would be a good idea to arrive at the airport in your comfortable clothes and keep your professional clothes nicely packed away in a separate, wrinkle-proof bag. That way, you’re only changing your clothes at the airport once and you lower your risk of losing any articles of clothing in the bathroom.
Bring a Blanket
Many airplanes provide blankets to passengers on red eyes, but why use one of these when you can pack one of your own? Travel blankets fold up to occupy very little space and they are lightweight. Plus, they’re usually more inviting than what the airline has to offer. Try one of these affordable options from TripSavvy’s best of 2020 travel blankets lineup.
You could even try using your travel blanket to sleep at home for a week before your red eye flight. This way, the blanket will feel familiar and your body will associate it with sleep. After all, as you’re probably noticing, getting quality sleep on an airplane is really all about convincing your body that you’re somewhere other than an airplane.
There is also no guarantee that your plane will have enough blankets for everyone. Unless you’re one of the first passengers to board, there is a very good chance that you won’t even get a blanket before they’re gone.
Still, you should try to be one of the first to board for other reasons.
Give yourself plenty of time to check in and get on your plane. If you cut it close to your departure time, you’ll be rushing to get on the plane and get your luggage put away, and the adrenaline this fills your body with is not exactly ideal for sleeping. Keep the process as frustration-free as possible and avoid potential mishaps by playing it safe and getting there with time to spare.
Aside from the sleep-friendly items on this list like pajamas and a travel blanket, try to pack as light as possible. By not bringing a bulky carry-on, you’ll give yourself more room to stretch your legs. And by not traveling with too many suitcases, you’ll be able to easily grab your stuff when it’s time to get off your plane and get to a coffee shop as quickly as possible.
Prioritize bringing the things that are going to help you sleep and whatever you must have with you at your destination. Everything else can stay at home.
Put Technology Away
Electronic devices like laptops and e-readers are usually great for long flights, but they have no place on red eyes.
Research has shown that using technology before bed reduces the amount of melatonin in your body. This hormone helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle and having less of it in your body at night makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep because your body thinks that you’re supposed to be awake. The blue light emitted by smartphones, laptops, and tablets has been linked with melatonin suppression.
If possible, put all electronic devices away 30 minutes to an hour before you hope to fall asleep. Reducing your stress levels before bed and avoiding artificial light can also help to increase your melatonin levels.
Don’t Forget the Neck Pillow!
Everyone who’s ever flown knows what a difference a neck pillow can make when sleeping. Even if you don’t take many red eye flights, you need a good neck pillow.
Shop around to find the right neck pillow for you. If you like memory foam at home, find one that’s memory foam. Maybe you’d prefer something microfiber that’s soft to the touch, a pillow that wraps around to provide support for your chin, or an inflatable pillow that takes up less space when you’re not using it. Neck pillows are inexpensive and easy to find, but it’s worth taking the time to pick a great one.
If having trouble falling asleep is normal for you, bring an over-the-counter sleep aid for good measure in addition to doing these 12 things. There are plenty of natural options available including melatonin supplements and valerian, a flower that can be taken in low doses to help you relax. You can also take a medication like Tylenol PM or ZzzQuil, but these should be used sparingly as a rule so that you don’t develop a dependence on them.
Getting decent sleep on even a short red eye flight is possible when you take the necessary steps to get comfortable and feel rested before your flight. Doing even just a few of the things on this list is sure to improve your inflight sleeping experience and hopefully reduce some of the apprehension you may feel about flying at night.
So while you are unlikely to get the best sleep of your life on a red eye flight and still might touch down with bags under your eyes, consider purchasing a red eye ticket the next time you fly. And don’t forget to follow these 12 tips for getting to sleep and staying asleep on an airplane.